One of the fringe issues of 2011 came roaring to the forefront as the calendar flipped to 2012.
When Allegheny County was forced by a judge to release its first set of property tax reassessment numbers last week, people went indiscriminately crazy as their property values skyrocketed with no rhyme or reason. Even if you weren’t among the first set of new values, the message was clear: This reassessment stuff is a disaster, and no one will be spared by the time it’s all over.
As the public outrage and media frenzy raged, the main question being asked was ‘how come these damn politicians didn’t know this was coming?’
Well, to be perfectly honest, have seen this coming for a couple of years now, but unfortunately a large segment of the public ignored the warnings because it wasn’t real to them yet. As more people get insanely inflated assessment figures in Allegheny County, and with another court-ordered reassessment in Washington County looming, more and more people will be paying attention and demanding action. The key is to make sure people understand what they should be demanding to fix the problem.
We have to look past the temptation to worry about the symptoms and focus on treating the disease. The basic reason the reassessment figures are so screwy is because the whole system is fundamentally flawed.
Using the current reassessment system is like building a functioning car out of gummy bears—no matter how hard you try, it’s just never going to work. So how do we treat the disease? We need to adopt a two-part approach to address both the short-term emergency and the long-term systemic problems.
Three years ago, the state House ordered a comprehensive review of the reassessment system in Pennsylvania. The exhaustive report, completed by the non-partisan Legislative Budget and Finance Committee in 2010, was jaw-dropping for anyone who managed to get through all 220 pages.
There were so many different issues to deal with that we needed to take a time-out and determine a comprehensive course of action. Standing in our way were lawyers for local school boards who were pushing in court to complete a reassessment, even though they knew the current system was totally inaccurate.
Although they were unwilling to admit it publicly, these school boards and their lawyers realized they could use a reassessment as a loophole to force a massive (and I do mean massive) tax increase onto people without getting any of the blame. I’ve asked the school boards and their lawyers on many occasions and before they stopped talking to me altogether, they were unable to come up with any other plausible answer to explain their overly aggressive actions.
The lawyers were especially cagey, because they were making big legal fees consisting solely of taxpayer dollars authorized by the school boards and then hiring expensive public relations firms to try and get famous for fighting for the taxpayers while actually doing the exact opposite.
It was sickening to watch.
Last June, I got a resolution passed in the state House that created a comprehensive task force to implement the recommendations of the 2009 report. I also that would have imposed a moratorium on all court-ordered reassessments until the end of 2012, with the idea being it would be insane to spend money on a reassessment while we’re actively trying to fix the system. The state Senate amended the bill in a way that made it clearly unconstitutional, and Gov. Tom Corbett issued a veto of the bill in July (his first and only veto).
But that was then, when no one was really paying much attention.
Now that everyone is looking for answers, here’s what we can do: First, the Legislature can pass my moratorium bill, HB 166, without amending it; this will stop all court-ordered reassessments for a year so the problem doesn’t get any worse. The bill has been sitting in a committee for a year and could be signed into law in a week if everyone got on board. HB 166 is the bandage to stop the bleeding.
The long-term solution comes in the form of the that has been meeting regularly for months now. The report, which is being written now and will be released within weeks, will spell out numerous regulatory and statutory changes we need to make in order to get the reassessment system under control.
Some of it will seem boring and unsexy, but we didn’t just pull these ideas out of a hat—this is the result of putting the people who really understand this stuff in a room and working together to find solutions to very complex problems.
I’ll have much more to say when the report is released, but until then realize that some of us saw this coming and have been working for years to fix it the best way possible.
We just need the public to support us in finally getting the problems solved, and with everyone suddenly paying attention, we may be able to actually get something done to benefit the people of Pennsylvania.
State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, soon will be representing many area residents after this year's state redistricting.